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Pelosi v. Trump: Game of chicken or battle of principles?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters about the cancellation of a congressional delegation to Afghanistan on Jan. 18, 2019. (CNN Newsource)

The standoff between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi grew more heated Friday as she accused the White House of placing her and others in danger by leaking details about a congressional delegation to Brussels and Afghanistan.

“The fact that they would leak that we’re flying commercial is a danger not only to us but to other people flying commercially, so it was very irresponsible on the part of the president,” Pelosi told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Trump canceled a military flight booked for Pelosi and other Democratic leaders Thursday, stating in a letter that she should remain in Washington and negotiate with him over a partial government shutdown. Trump also snidely suggested they could fly commercially instead, but Pelosi said that option was scrapped after the State Department informed her office overnight the publicizing of details of the trip made it much more dangerous for the delegation and the people they planned to meet with on the ground.

Asked whether Trump’s letter was retaliation for one she sent Wednesday asking him to postpone the State of the Union address until after the shutdown is resolved, Pelosi replied, “I would hope not. I don’t think the president would be that petty, do you?”

Many in Washington believe the president would indeed be that petty, while others say Pelosi’s letter was similarly petulant and poisonous. Both actions marked a new low in a relationship that seems to have devolved rapidly as efforts to end the shutdown stall with no end in sight.

The White House called Pelosi’s allegation that it leaked the flight information “a flat-out lie,” but her office said reporters had contacted them citing information from administration sources about the commercial flights.

In her letter, Pelosi cited security concerns to justify postponing Trump’s speech, noting that Secret Service agents working the event would not be getting paid. Critics dismissed that explanation, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the agency was fully prepared to protect the site regardless of the status of the shutdown.

“I plan to be there,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Wednesday afternoon. “I believe the president will address the nation and address the Congress then. I think he should. I don’t think Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, should weigh in on that. That’s her opinion. She’s wrong again.”

According to The New York Times, White House aides said the intent of canceling Pelosi’s flight was “to put her in her place after she had emphasized that she represented a coequal branch in governing.”

Democrats echoed Pelosi’s response that the revelation of the congressional delegation was dangerous, but Trump’s move got mixed reviews from Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said it was “completely appropriate,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham rebuked both Trump and Pelosi.

"One sophomoric response does not deserve another," Graham said. "Speaker Pelosi's threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political. President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel to visit our troops in Afghanistan, our allies in Egypt and NATO is also inappropriate."

With Pelosi casting the State of the Union venue into doubt, House Republicans and outside allies have urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to invite Trump to deliver the speech in the Senate. McConnell’s office has so far dismissed those requests as hypothetical.

Partisans on both sides have embraced the growing rivalry, with each declaring their leader the victor. However, some strategists say neither party came out of the fourth week of the longest government shutdown in history looking good.

“Most Americans expect that used car dealers will try to make as much money as possible on a car sale and most Americans expect politicians will act politically against each other to advance their interests,” said Republican strategist Mark Weaver. “This back-and-forth between Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump is what most Americans are tired of from politicians, but they’re not surprised by it.”

Pelosi may have more to lose than Trump because Democrats pitched themselves to voters last fall as the more mature, responsible party. Most of the public currently blames Trump for the shutdown, but Tom Whalen, a presidential historian at Boston University and author of “JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power,” warned that could easily change as the damage spreads.

“Democrats are trying to portray themselves as more reasonable, but as the economic pain gets more severe, that becomes a harder argument to make,” Whalen said.

However, longtime California Democratic strategist Darry Sragow cautioned opponents against underestimating Pelosi.

“If we’re looking at Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump climbing into the ring to duke it out, if you measure the two of them based on their toughness, their skill, their intelligence, I know Nancy Pelosi and I would give her ten out of ten on each of those,” said Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book.

“President Pelosi” was trending on Twitter Friday as users contemplated the exceedingly unlikely prospect of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both being forced to resign and the speaker of the House assuming the presidency.

Meanwhile, Trump’s re-election campaign was urging supporters to donate $20.20 to pay for fake bricks to be sent to Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s offices. The bricks will feature what the campaign claims are facts about border security and a number to text in support of a wall.

“Since Chuck and Nancy keep stonewalling the President, we’ll send the wall to them, brick by brick, until they agree to secure the border,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.

It all amounts to a less-than-promising start for the new era of divided government ushered in by the midterms and a sign that they country could be in for a very long 22 months until the 2020 election.

Trump allies have often said he respects Pelosi, and he has largely refrained from subjecting her to the kind of name-calling he directs at other critics like “Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer. It is clear tension between to two leaders is rising amid the shutdown, though.

“Given the stakes, I think it’s been remarkably restrained and cordial up to this point,” Whalen said.

During a televised Oval Office meeting last month, Pelosi goaded Trump into stating he would be proud to shut the government down over funding for a border wall. At their last White House meeting, Pelosi reportedly told Trump she would not give him money for a wall even if he did reopen the government and he walked out of the Situation Room in response.

Conflicts between a president and a speaker from the opposing party are nothing new, nor are grudging compromises where neither side gets exactly what they want. Some say the dynamic between Trump and Pelosi is different, though.

“We have never seen the level of hostility between the speaker of the House and a president that we have with Nancy Pelosi and President Trump,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the impeachment effort against President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, claimed on Fox News Friday.

“Even in the worst periods, he and I could always talk,” Gingrich said of Clinton.

Pelosi herself fought bruising battles with President George W. Bush and still managed to work with him on some issues, but Whalen said Trump’s frequent exaggerations and false statements make such cooperation more difficult.

“This is not working with George W. Bush... With the Bush administration, both sides could agree to a basic set of facts,” he said.

What is consistent with past skirmishes between the White House and the speaker is that this is fundamentally a conflict over the balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

“That’s what Nancy Pelosi in a broader sense is arguing here, that you can’t overlook us, you can’t bypass Congress,” Whalen said.

That larger point is exactly why Sragow expects Pelosi will hold her ground.

“I just think what you see here is two very determined people digging in their heels but for very different reasons. From the speaker’s point of view, this is not about ego. This is not about who’s the toughest player in the room. There are much more fundamental principles here,” he said.

Washington was already nearly two weeks into the shutdown when Pelosi was sworn in on Jan. 3. She secured the support of most of the Democratic caucus despite growing calls within the party for newer, younger leadership, so she surely has no desire to kick off her speakership by caving to Trump on his most memorable campaign promise.

“There are certainly doubts among the new young members in the Democratic caucus, so she has her hands tied in that respect,” Whalen said.

Trump and Pelosi are playing chicken, according to Weaver, and neither can afford to be the first to blink.

“Both of them are looking to 2020, so they have the same problem from opposite perspectives,” Weaver said. “Donald Trump must keep his base happy or he cannot win re-election. Nancy Pelosi must keep her base happy or her party will lose the House. Neither of them is paying much attention to the sensible center... One side might declare victory and go home, but neither side will give up.”

Again, though, Sragow stressed there may be more than politics at stake for Pelosi.

“The question is not whether she pays some kind of price inside the beltway based on how she handles this...,” he said. “If you compromise, what does that say about who’s running the country? Last time I looked, we’re not a dictatorship.”

For several days last week, the president seemed to be inching toward declaring a national emergency over border security, a questionably legal maneuver that might allow him to redirect some military funds toward building border walls. The move would be guaranteed to face months, if not years, of legal battles before any construction begins, and Trump has since made clear he would prefer a political solution.

It is not clear what such a political solution would look like at this point with both parties hardening their positions as the stakes rise. If no agreement is reached by Tuesday, federal workers will miss another payday. Concerns about the long-term economic consequences of a shutdown are growing, and questions are emerging about the effects on air travel, food safety, and even Super Bowl security.

“As this proceeds, the news coverage will ramp up about people affected by the shutdown,” Weaver said. “You’d think that would mobilize public opinion but so much of this is background noise to American voters. Unless it affects them directly, they won’t pick up the phone and dial their member of Congress and yell.”

Whalen observed the direct effect could come as soon as next week, when large swaths of the country face forecasts of major winter storms. If the weather causes serious damage, states will turn to the federal government for emergency aid, and they may not find any.

“FEMA right now is in no position to provide aid or assistance, so I think that’s going to amp up the pressure on both sides to work out some sort of agreement,” he said.

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